The Verde Report: Austin FC Sees Path to First-Year Success in Nashville SC
Sunday rivals offer a blueprint for first-year MLS success for a small market club
The Live Music Derby? The Willie Nelson Cup? The Battle of Sixth Street and Broadway? I'm not a marketing person, but man, something about Austin vs. Nashville feels like an instant rivalry game. Major League Soccer seems to agree. In a season where, to limit travel, each club only plays two games against teams from the opposite conference, MLS has the West's Austin FC visiting the East's Nashville SC in a nationally televised match, Sunday, May 23, 8pm on FS1.
The similarities between the two recent expansion franchises are not just limited to the culture of the cities they call home. When Austin FC lines up for kickoff at Nissan Stadium, they will see across from them the blueprint for first-year MLS success for a small market club. It's a blueprint that the Verde is already well on track to replicating.
And yes, Austin FC is officially a small market club. For now, at least. Last week, the MLS Players Association released complete player salary information for the 2021 season, and Austin FC's payroll ranked second-lowest in the league. But just last season, Nashville SC showed that an expansion club with limited cash flow can compete in year one, sneak into the MLS Cup Playoffs, and even make a little noise when they get there.
So how did they do it? First, by naming a head coach early and committing to his style of play. Here's where the similarities between the clubs begin. Englishman Gary Smith had been Nashville SC's skipper in the club's formative second-division (USL Championship) years, before its MLS call-up. Smith's performance earned him the appointment as the club's permanent head coach in March 2019, a full year before Nashville SC's top-flight debut. Smith was able to influence the roster-building process and help assemble a squad capable of executing his organized, defense-minded brand of soccer.
Josh Wolff, hired 18 months before Austin FC's MLS debut, was able to offer similar input to the construction of the roster to benefit his possession-and-attacking-based play style.
Nashville built a roster core of experienced MLS veterans and young international Designated Players. They traded for midfielder Dax McCarty and defender Walker Zimmerman, two former U.S. national team players with more than 400 MLS appearances between them, to anchor the defense. They spent their DP money on attackers outside the league in Hany Mukhtar, Jhonder Cádiz, and Randall Leal, all in their early to mid 20s.
Austin FC possesses a strikingly similar core comprising defensive MLS vets Alex Ring and Matt Besler behind young attacking DPs Cecilio Domínguez and Tomás Pochettino. ATXFC, notably, has one DP slot available, which it plans to fill in the summer.
It took Nashville some time to get settled in, as it has the Verde. Nashville managed just 4 points (a win and a draw) through its first six games. But the Music City men demonstrated gradual improvement throughout the season. They lost just three of their final 17 regular season games, then carried that momentum to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"Nashville did a good job last year, coming in and being competitive," Wolff said Tuesday. "They were difficult to play against, and along the way they became better offensively. That's the growth that can happen, but it takes time. For us, we're aware of that."
Austin currently sits ahead of Nashville's pace from last year at 6 points through five games. But Wolff's group now has to show similar improvement over the course of the season to enjoy the first-year success of their Sunday opponents.